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Learning Cultural, Language Differences Helps Managing Hispanic Workforce
Working with Hispanics: Immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries bring their unique ways of life; understanding basic differences in language and culture can help in managing Hispanic workers.

By Peter Hildebrandt
Date Posted: 4/1/2006

Each year immigrants from different Spanish-speaking countries come to the U.S., bringing with them their unique way of life. Understanding some of the basic differences in language and culture can go a long way to managing and supervising Hispanic workers in the forest products industry, say a couple of experts who have been dealing with these issues.

Alfredo Martinez and Barbara Kraft were scheduled to participate in a workshop on managing the Hispanic workforce at the U.S. Forest Service Wood Education and Resource Center in Princeton, W.Va. in late March. The two-day workshop was co-sponsored by Virginia Tech.

Alfredo and Barbara were among five experts who would discuss such issues as improving multicultural management skills, enhancing communication and safety, best practices, and legal matters. The two talked with Pallet Enterprise prior to the workshop.

Alfredo is a plant pathologist and has worked with the Hispanic workforce as an extension specialist. He founded the Georgia Hispanic Specialists Group at the University of Georgia. Originally from Mexico, Alfredo was educated at Montana State University, where he earned two degrees, including a PhD in plant pathology.

Barbara is a Virginia Tech Instructor. She developed a program four years ago in an effort to further prepare horticulture and agriculture students for their careers. Barbara works with the Sloan Foundation Forest Industries Center at Virginia Tech in developing Spanish training for employers in the forest products industries. She lived in Mexico and Venezuela as a child and grew up speaking both English and Spanish; Barbara also lived briefly in Spain.

Hispanics make up an estimated 60,000 workers in Georgia’s ‘green’ industry, Alfredo noted. "This workforce is now approximately 80 percent Hispanic with managers who are chiefly English-speaking," he said. "The ‘green’ industry in Georgia is one of the fastest growing in the state, including landscapers, nurseries and other businesses working with plants and mulch. There is a tremendous need to service this clientele. And, of course, being bi-lingual and bi-cultural has helped me to become a resource in this area."

"There are lots of communication problems on the job sites," Alfredo observed. "Managers want to increase productivity, minimize accidents and be more in tune with this clientele. Simply by improving human relations many things will improve."

Georgia has established special training for Hispanics since 2002 and now offers training statewide for many of them.

First of all, not all Spanish-speaking workers should be lumped together as Hispanics, noted Alfredo. It is useful to know as many of the differences, such as country of origin, among their workers in order to better understand them.

Sixty to 75% of the immigrant workers that most supervisors will deal with are from Mexico, but sometimes an entire workforce will consist of individuals from other countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala or Venezuela.

"We are a very gregarious people," said Alfredo. "That comes from our tendency to have large families. Family is very important for Hispanics. Here in the U.S., a family means a so-called ‘nuclear family,’ simply my wife and kids. A Mexican family includes uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents – everybody. This is something managers and supervisors need to be aware of."

In Mexico this extended family is usually the first priority in a person’s life. The children are largely sheltered, and there is much parental control over them. Wives typically have a domestic role in Mexican life. People rarely move from place to place, and there is great loyalty to the village or region where a person grew up.

By contrast, Americans put a high priority on their work, said Alfredo. "We, here in the U.S., tend to value independence in our children," he added. "If better work turns up in another area of the country, the attitude is, ‘Well, I’ll just go there.’ In Mexico, though it is changing somewhat, the people who are in a village are going to be there for their entire life. Employers who keep this in mind will do well in retaining workers as the desire to be part of a group or community, whether in a village or in their place of work, is very strong."

In Mexico and other Hispanic countries, the father or oldest male in the community is often the one with the greatest power. A father has a lot of authority; if he says something, that’s the way it will be. Mexican people typically have a lot of respect for their elders.

"If a Hispanic worker comes to this country and finds a young man as his supervisor, that might not be seen as an advantage, no matter how bright and well versed that supervisor may be," said Alfredo. "We really respect older people, despite the fact that that older person may not always be very bright. From a manager’s perspective, it might work to involve older people or a paternal figure with more seniority in positions of leadership, or at least couple such people with the bright young person, so that at the beginning there aren’t too many problems. It is really good to take advantage, in some way, of the great respect in the Hispanic culture for age."

The same thing goes for women who might be in leadership roles in a company. It may help smooth the way with Hispanic workers if women have positions such as implementing health and safety practices or helping in landscape design.

A family environment in the workplace and an interest in the families of the Hispanic workers will be helpful. "I often tell managers to be interested not just in their workers but in their entire family," said Alfredo. "Just a little bit of interest goes a long way. Learn the names of their children and ask for them. It makes it that much more like you are from their ‘familia.’ "

Often, Hispanic workers may be separated from their family; their family may still be in their country of origin. "Anything that helps them in their communication with their family will help them," said Alfredo. For example, some businesses allow their Hispanics to use phone cards and e-mail to keep in touch with their families. That kind of support often is valued more than time off or even a pay raise, according to Alfredo.

Since Hispanic workers may send much of their earnings to their families in the country of origin, another way you can support them and build good will is help them arrange for these transfers as quickly and safely as possible.

"If you as a manger do some of these small things for your workers, they will love you and be as productive as possible for you," said Alfredo. "Just remembering where they are from when you speak to them really makes them feel welcome. Managers can also keep Spanish language newspapers around as well as other sources for Hispanic information that can make them feel at home, too."

A Hispanic worker, to avoid what he perceives as embarrassment, may not admit that he does not know how to operate certain machinery. Instead of asking them if they know, supervisors should simply ask to see how the employee operates or handles a tool or machine. If they demonstrate that they are unfamiliar with correct procedures, the supervisor should suggest that he can show them a better and safer way to operate the equipment.

Because most Hispanics do not know English, body language makes a big difference in communication. It is important for managers to be aware not only of what they say but also of what they do when dealing with these employees.

"If it is in your nature to frown and act mad, just as part of your personality, you may instead be conveying the wrong message," said Alfredo. "Hugging and close contact are part of the Mexican culture. In the U.S. however, the tendency is to say a person is your friend, but then to make sure that you have your own space and keep your distance."

Dropping one’s head and lowering the eyes while being addressed is a sign of respect in the Mexican culture. Our tendency, to make eye contact when speaking with someone, is not typical for relations between workers and supervisors in Mexico. If a Hispanic averts his eyes or lowers his gaze when he is being addressed by a manager, he actually is showing his supervisor respect, not defiance.

Hispanic workers in the U.S. are usually young men who have a very strong work ethic. They also are used to accepting and following directions. They may know a better way to perform a given task, however. It is important to impress upon them that managers welcome their ideas for performing tasks better or more efficiently. This often is a difficult concept for Hispanic workers to grasp because it is not part of their work culture in their country of origin.

Another important way that businesses can help their Hispanic workers is to encourage and facilitate their involvement in suitable recreational activities on weekends. With time on their hands on the weekends and far from their families, the young men may become lonely or depressed and prone to drinking and abusing alcohol. Encourage and help arrange group activities for them, such as a night at the movies, soccer games or other recreation.

"In Georgia, one of the employers who has a golf course has set up some small soccer goals," said Alfredo. "In the afternoons these workers play against each other and have a great time."

Some employers may wonder why they should become so involved in the off-duty lives of their workers. "The answer is simple," said Alfredo. "On Monday your workers will not show up if they’ve not had anything else to do to lift their spirits besides drinking. If punctuality and attendance are important to you as a manger, these are things to keep in mind. This in turn has a team-building effect."

Americans and Hispanics also have different concepts of time, particularly as they relate to various work schedules and deadlines, Alfredo noted. For Mexican workers, time is a more relative concept. If a project is scheduled to be completed by the 13th of the month, for example, Mexican workers are more flexible and would be satisfied to finish the project by the 14th, 15th or 16th.

In fact, to the Hispanic, it shows better manners to be a little late. "In Mexico it is something of a custom to show up a bit later than the time agreed on for meeting," Alfredo explained. "If you arrive exactly on time for an appointment, that’s considered somewhat impolite." As far as meeting work deadlines and schedules, a Mexican’s point of view is, "I will finish the job when I finish the job," he added.

In Mexico, the main meal of the day is lunch. "That is when many of the deals are made," said Alfredo.

Americans consider competition among individual workers healthy. Some businesses recognize and reward outstanding individual performance, such as an award for employee of the month. The Mexican business world prefers to recognize and reward groups of employees, which stems from the culture’s emphasis on family life and extended family members.

"In Mexico, you are very loyal to the group," Alfredo observed. "One landscaper I know, instead of giving out employee of the month awards, selected green, red and blue teams and then rewarded the top group of people. This promotes competitiveness but in a more group-oriented manner."

Religion is a very important aspect of Hispanic culture. Nearly 90% of the population of Mexico is Catholic. Because of their Catholic training and upbringing, Hispanic workers may tend to be fatalistic in their approach to life.

Managers should be aware that Hispanics observe certain religious holidays, such as Nov. 2 and Dec. 12, and are accustomed to taking off from work those days. Another important religious observance is Holy Week prior to Easter.

Despite the fatalistic attitude of many Hispanic workers towards injury or death, managers can appeal to their strong religious beliefs by reminding them that God wants them to be safe when they work.

Mexico has a government health program, and workers will not be familiar with health insurance and other insurance matters in the U.S. When describing the benefits of insurance, it will help Mexican workers to understand from specific cases or examples. When talking about health or life insurance, for example, it will help them to understand its value or importance by describing insurance benefits paid for a particular employee or his spouse.

Like other experts participating in the workshop, Barbara believes there is a huge need for more workshops on Hispanic language, cultural, immigration, legal and safety issues.

The vast majority of supervisors and managers that Barbara has taught in other workshops works with predominantly Mexican workers. The focus of her class is to go beyond the need for an interpreter to show that there are more resources available in the Spanish language. Managers do not always to have to rely on themselves to learn Spanish or to hire an interpreter.

"I’m working at making them aware of what is available as far as good books and resources on the Internet," said Barbara. "Because so many different industries are being served by Spanish-speaking people, I’ve condensed my Spanish emphasis to basic management: hiring, firing and working with your employees. I’ve kept things very simple."

She provides seminar participants with a booklet containing the words that she introduced as well as an audio tape for the correct pronunciation. "It’s difficult to learn much in an hour and a half," she observed. "This way they can take this information I’ve supplied with them and practice it further if they feel the need to as well as have something tangible to leave class with."

"One of the most important aspects of what I teach is that the Hispanic community is not only coming just from Mexico but from a variety of other Central American countries," said Barbara. "Therefore, word pronunciations and meanings can change from culture to culture. Though they may understand what you are saying, there are also differences out there at times."

It is easy to note cultural differences by watching some of the Spanish-speaking television programs. Spanish-speaking programs, for example, reflect a culture still caught up in the type humor based more on slapstick and variety-style shows that are no longer seen in the U.S.

Barbara’s workshop sessions focus primarily on aspects of language. She acknowledged questions about the use of the word ‘Hispanic.’ Some people prefer to be called by their country of origin, such as Mexican, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, and Venezuelan or Spanish, and not a label such as ‘Hispanic,’ which does not reflect differences in nationality.

Barbara does not keep a list of words that might give managers problems, but she pointed out the importance of careful use of the words ‘tu’ and ‘usted’ for ‘you.’ Central Americans commonly use the ‘usted’ form of ‘you.’ The informal ‘tu’ is used mainly in Spain.

"If you are a supervisor asking someone to do something, it is very respectful to ask them using the usted form," she said. "This would be especially important if your workers are from Central and South America or Mexico. People in those areas speak using that form all the time. I emphasize the importance of speaking to your workers as they would speak to each other and how they would ask each other to do things, which is in the more formal form of address."

Learning some of the intricacies of differences in language and culture is an important start in communicating with Spanish-speaking people who now make up a significant part of the workforce in the forest products industry.

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